(The article below is based on an excerpt from my book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. I have used a pseudonym to protect the privacy of family members.)
Once when I was in my early twenties, I confronted my mother. I matter-of-factly said, “You know, Mom, you beat me. You beat me a lot.”
She replied, “I don’t remember that.”
“Well, you did,” I pressed.
“Maybe I slapped you once or twice.” So, that was her concession.
A letter came 20 years later. My mother wrote, “I am sorry if I did anything to hurt you,” and something to the effect that she would like to reestablish a connection.
I considered it to be a non-apology apology. I tossed the letter in the trash.
As a child, I was physically and emotionally abused by my mother who was mentally ill. Research conducted by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child shows there can be a connection between parental mental illness and child abuse. The beatings I endured were tolerable; the psychological abuse left enduring scars.
I recently found out that my brother, Alec, received a thick letter from my mother just before she died. “The envelope felt acidic,” he said. “It may have contained something nice, or it may have been nasty. I figured the odds were fifty-fifty. I didn’t read it. I opened it and shredded the contents.”
As my mother was drifting in and out of consciousness on her death bed some five years ago, I was not uncompassionate. I stuck to pleasant memories of dance classes (she sewed my costumes) and birthday cakes. I did not dredge up the bad events of the past. I did not bring up her maltreatment.
I did not deal with issues of blame or forgiveness.
But, at some point, many of us who experienced childhood trauma do. We wrestle with the decision to forgive or not to forgive the person who inflicted abuse or subjected us to an environment that created toxic stress when the perpetrator is a parent, caregiver, or someone close who was supposed to protect us and nurture us when we were most vulnerable.
In her article, “The Debt,” Emily Yoffe writes that “accepting what happened and moving on is a good general principle. But it can be comforting for those being browbeaten to absolve their parents to recognize that forgiveness works best as a mutual endeavor. After all, many adult children of abusers have never heard a word of regret from their parent or parents. People who have the capacity to ruthlessly maltreat their children tend toward self-justification, not shame.”
Yoffe notes that some people urge children of parents who maltreated them to reconnect if there is estrangement, but there can be dangers. These people fail to consider “the potential psychological cost of reconnecting, of dredging up painful memories and reviving destructive patterns.”
“It’s wonderful when there can be true reconciliation and healing,” Yoffe says. However, she believes that adults who were abused as kids shouldn’t be “hammered with lectures about the benefits of—here comes that dread word—closure. Sometimes the best thing to do is close the door.”
Eleanor Payson, a marital and family therapist in Michigan and the author of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, notes that setting limits is critical. “You may need to keep yourself in a shark cage with no opportunity for that person to take a bite out of you.” Or, conversation can be anodyne. Payson comments, “You can say something respectful, something good-faith-oriented. ‘I wish you well;’ ‘I continue to work on my own forgiveness.’”
I never did make the peace with my mother that I contemplated when she suffered a heart attack several years prior to her death. For most of my life, I vacillated between maintaining contact and estrangement. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to forgive or not forgive.
“Forgiveness can be key in the healing process,” says Rona Bartelstone, a licensed clinical social worker and CEO of OurAging, a care management consulting company based in Miami. “We do have choices about the direction our life takes even though we may have troubled starts.”
For adult children of mentally ill parents who experienced maltreatment, she says, “When someone (a parent) is mentally ill, you have to realize it’s their problem not yours. Yes, terrible things may have happened to you, and it’s sad and disappointing, but you have to recognize in this case that you were the target. The mental illness had nothing to do with you.”
“If you hold onto anger, it’s like keeping your foot on the brake while you’re driving on the Autobahn,” Bartelstone continues. “You are putting restrictions on every aspect of your life—your ability to feel joy, appreciate yourself, and form healthy relationships. Letting go of the anger and making the choice to change the pattern in your life may sound glib and easy. But, it’s like trying to unscramble an egg. Working on forgiveness and trying to move on can be difficult.”
If you find you can’t let go of the anger and disappointment, Bartelstone suggests “putting it in a box that has a tight lock on it—a place in the corner of your mind where it doesn’t come out every day. That’s not to say it won’t sneak out every once in a while, but it’s not front and center. You’re not carrying it around, so it’s not heavy and restrictive. This technique can help the healing process along.”
“It’s clear that living in the past doesn’t work,” says Dr. Philip Muskin of Columbia University Medical Center. “The past doesn’t belong in the present. You can’t walk around filled with rage and feeling bad about yourself. You have to let those feelings go. Dump them. Forgiveness is crucial to achieving wellness. It releases you from the past. But, forgiving isn’t excusing. You can forgive a mother’s maltreatment but not excuse it.”
Most importantly, Dr. Muskin says, “You have to forgive yourself and be able to say, ‘It’s not my fault. I was taken advantage of.’ When you forgive yourself, you take the secrecy and shame out of what happened to you. This changes the way you see yourself and the world around you. It’s freeing to say, ‘I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor.’”
Four years after my mother’s death, I planted miniature roses at her grave. As I placed the roses in the earth, a thorn pricked my finger. I prayed for my mother. Then, I spoke to her silently.
“I forgive you, Mom.”